If you’re reading this, you probably said yes to one of the two questions. If you’re stuck working next to the jerk, you likely want some tools or techniques to help you manage the S.O.B. If you’re the S.O.B. perhaps you’ve gotten the “clean up your act or else” message and you need help.

In either case, you’ve come to the right place.

angry-bossWhat is a corporate jerk?
We know a jerk when we see one. If we spot aggressive or thoughtless behavior on the highway or out shopping, we mutter, “What a jerk!” and drive or walk away. With “corporate jerks” it’s worse. We can’t just leave them in our rear view mirrors. Their rude, impatient or dismissive behavior ruins the workplace for everyone and stops others from working in harmony. Sure, everyone has a bad day. We’re not talking about isolated incidents. To truly earn the inglorious moniker in this article’s headline, one needs to have started the entire office talking:

  • “He’s such a big baby when business dinners don’t meet his irrational expectations. The way he talks to the wait staff is embarrassing!”
  • “Have you seen how she cuts in to the front of the lunch line like she’s the only one with work to do? So irritating.”
  • “In our staff meetings, he describes people in other departments as ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant;’ he’s setting such a great example with that mouth of his.”
  • “In public, he always plays the professional, but in a one-on-one, he’ll take out your kneecaps. That guy knows exactly how to play the game.”

More than making for juicy water-cooler conversation, if the S.O.B. is in a position of authority, there’s a lot of misery at the office. The corporate jerk establishes a pattern that wreaks havoc on beleaguered colleagues. That pattern becomes the office truth, fueling a less-than-favorable reputation that could be tough to shake. If you’re Person X, you may say, “So what? It’s not like I’m doing anything really terrible. And the work I do here is really important. People need to lighten up!” Ironically, a lack of sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of jerkiness.

As a coach who is often called upon to help smooth the rough edges of some of these folks, I’ve heard every possible excuse and rationalization:

  • “We’re under tight timeframes; no one seems to understand that.”
  • “You have no idea the pressure I’m under from upstairs.”
  • “If you’re too soft on people, they’ll take advantage of you and nothing will get done.”

On some level you think you’re doing the right thing. You’re not.

Studies have shown that rude, uncivil and thoughtless behavior actually costs your company thousands of dollars each year in soft costs (like the time lost at the water cooler) and hard costs (like the legal fees when disgruntled employees decide to seek retribution.) If you are in danger of being known as the Corporate Jerk in your office, you need to make changes:

1. Ask for feedback, and seek out people who will tell you the truth. Don’t be surprised if a few of your direct reports act really surprised that you’re asking. Some may even insist that everything is just fine. Depending on how powerful you are (or how big of a jerk you’ve been) they might be afraid to tell the truth. Look to peers, mentors or more senior colleagues who have less to lose by being frank. Self awareness is the first step to self management.
2. Listen to the feedback without any excuses, rationalization or defensiveness. It’s difficult, but if you really want to improve, you need to be completely open to the ugly truth.
3. Say “thank you” for the feedback. Seriously. And not just the token “thanks” you give the taxi driver when he hands over your receipt. Make your thank-you commensurate with the risk and time someone took to answer you fully and honestly.
4. Take action. Review the feedback carefully and focus on one action item for a period of time until that new behavior becomes routine and a new pattern becomes reliable to your co-workers. Then move on to the next action item.
5. Be overt. Let people know from the start that you are deliberately trying to change. Say things like “Lately I’ve been counting to 100 before responding to those emails” or “I’m working on being a little less aggressive and opinionated at meetings” – or whatever it is you are trying to do.

Being a jerk will NOT help you in the long term, no matter how much you try to justify it. Organizations are growing increasingly intolerant of such behavior and they are certainly not going to change for you. The responsibility to adapt is yours.
If you work with a corporate jerk, what can you do to minimize the distraction and frustration that surrounds them?

1. Take the high road. Don’t allow the jerk to suck you into the quagmire of bad behavior. That will quickly devolve into a ruined relationship…or worse.
2. Set the standard for interaction. When faced with rude or thoughtless behavior, calmly tell the offender that you don’t respond well to that tone of voice (or those swear words or unreasonable demands) and you would appreciate it if the two of you could have a more professional conversation.
3. Give the jerk constructive feedback if asked. Be thoughtful and provide examples of the offensive behavior and the impact it had on your ability to do your job well. If the first three steps don’t work, bring the situation to the attention of your manager, HR representative or another trusted authority. Provide specific examples of the offending behavior and the steps you took to address the situation.

You may not believe that you have the power or the courage to take on the corporate jerk. However, being prepared to do so will make you feel more empowered and less like the hapless fly trapped in the spider’s web.